In what may be my favorite moment of dialogue in all of television ever, Mad Men‘s Betty Draper is being hit on by the naïve young Arthur Case at the stables where they both ride. As she is giving him the brush off, he tells her, “You’re so profoundly sad.” Betty’s response: “No. It’s just my people are Nordic.”
I have been told many times by the smug Arthurs of the world that they know what my emotional state is. I have been nicknamed by my very own mother “The Ice Princess” since I was a small child. If only I’d had Betty Draper’s dry wit in those situations. My people, too, are Nordic.
We are cold people. We are scientists, logicians, phenomenologists, mechanics, engineers, ship-builders, cabinet-makers, fishermen, Alpine climbers, ice-hearted businessmen, snow-shoe hikers, Arctic tundra dwellers. We come from small, rocky islands bathed in a thick grey mist, where preserved fish and ice-cold vodka warm the body from within. We are sailors of the Baltic, the North Sea, the North Atlantic; settlers of the frozen Great Lakes; residents of old misty mountains; perchers on the edge of the cold Pacific. We measure, we analyze, we calculate. Our eyes are the color of ice, of deep ocean waters, of granite. Cold is in our blood.
When my Alaskan cousin sent me an email about Bill Streever’s book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, little did he know that I had already heard an interview with Streever on the radio and had procured a copy of my own as soon as possible. An entire book dedicated to cold, I thought, would be just the sort of thing to have handy on my bedside table for those nights when I felt like weeping in exhaustion after having endured yet another day in a suicidally hot and humid place like the one where I currently live. I could assuage my pain by living vicariously through Streever’s travels and research.
His book details (among many other things) the time he spent in Fairbanks (where my cousins live) studying the patterns of winter there; the cold. Here is what he writes about the time he immersed himself inthe near-frozen waters of Prudhoe Bay:
I go in headfirst. The water temperature is thirty-five degrees. I come up gasping. I stand on a sandy bottom, immersed to my neck. The water stings, as if I am rolling naked through a field of nettles. I wait for the gasp reflex to subside. My skin tightens around my body. My brain — the part of it I cannot control — has sent word to the capillaries in my extremities. “Clamp down,” my brain has commanded, “and conserve heat.” I feel as if I am being shrink-wrapped, like a slab of salmon just before it is tossed into the Deepfreeze.
I had Streever’s words in mind as I prepared to plunge into my tub of ice water after today’s run – – the recovery ice bath I had been assured would prevent muscle soreness the next day. I filled the tub with cold water and dumped in as much ice as I had — I had been making extra and saving it in the freezer all week with today’s bath in mind. I plopped my still be-socked feet into the icy water and carefully slid all the way in, immersing myself to just above the waist.
I felt the cold ache in my feet, the part of my lower body that is the least well insulated with fat. My calves, shins, and thighs were slower to feel the prickling sensation Streever descibes, but as I sat in the ice water I could easily envision the capillaries constricting, the over-worked muscle fiber wringing itself out, any potential swelling prevented before it could begin.
It didn’t hurt. Honestly, the extreme cold I subjected myself to for those fifteen minutes felt like a relief. Whether or not I’ll feel any delayed-onset muscle soreness tomorrow (as would be typical), I can say that the time spent in the ice bath was, strangely enough, a pleasure. It may have been the only time my body stopped actively producing sweat since I moved to Alabama in 2007.
I will no doubt be employing the ice bath after my race two weeks from now. With a hotel ice machine, I may even be able to get enough ice to make it truly, terribly, wonderfully cold in that tub. Ice bath, take me home.